What “Life of Pi” really says about belief in God

[Contains spoilers, not that it should matter.]

(This post will make more sense to readers who’ve seen “Life of Pi.”)

I thought of something about “Life of Pi” this morning that I think I missed in my initial reflection on the movie. I saw the movie about 5 days ago.

Consider the two lifeboat stories: the one with the animals and the one with the cook. When the writer said he preferred the story with the animals, Pi said “So it goes with God.” I thought I understood that line, but over the next few days I realized I wasn’t sure.

In the story with the animals, all characters were morally neutral. It wasn’t any more “wrong” for the hyena to eat the zebra or attack the orangutan than it was for the zebra to kick the hyena or the orangutan to slap it. It’s a hyena: it’s hungry and eating tasty zebras and orangutans is just what it does. Then the tiger pounced out and killed the hyena: again, that’s just what tigers do. When Pi was going to let the tiger drown, that too would have been okay: since when is a person morally obligated to put his own life in danger by taking a grown Bengal tiger into his lifeboat?

In the story with the cook, by contrast, there was a consistent, single morality to the situation: the cook’s actions were immoral; Pi’s mother’s actions, and those of the sailor, were not. Even the cook acknowledged this when he didn’t fight back against Pi as Pi killed him. Pi described his own actions as evil also.

We tend to think of the existence of God as implying a universal morality. So of the two lifeboat stories, the one with the animals took place in more of a Godless universe than the one with the cook.

Pi’s story was advertised as “will make you believe in God.” When the writer said he preferred the story with the animals, the typical audience reaction might be that he chose the story more reminiscent of religious mythology, and so Pi caused him to experience the allure and magic of religious belief. But in fact, the writer chose the more Godless story. And yet the Godless story is in fact much more of a fantastical candy-coating on hard reality. The whole reason the hard, gritty, realistic story seems hard and gritty and realistic is because of God. Realizing THAT is why the writer comes to believe in God.

Or that’s my new working theory anyway.

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